Saturday, November 26, 2011

Theatre review: "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" at Benedum Center

You might think that a show whose title and timing suggests commercial exploitation of this season would be standard and obvious. But, actually, the traveling version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, to lay out the whole cumbersome title, looks, sounds and feels like an absolute charmer.

I imagine the concept and the story have become well known by now, yet it’s fresh to me. So I can’t offer an opinion on how well it does with the original source, the book, the animated film nor the Jim Carrey movie. But with the wonderful Stefan Karl starring as the Mean One, this package comes loaded with delights, including, front and center, attractive, melodious songs by Timothy Mason, Mel Marvin, Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss himself. Moreover the clever Seuss-style costumes and sets by Robert Morgan and John Lee Beatty as well as Matt August’s snappy direction give the whole thing loads of style and personality. This is all augmented by special effects, puppets and jolly moments encouraging audience participation.

Karl’s playing of The Grinch explores a delightful range of implications, intonations and non- verbal sounds, making the creature sincerely, wildly distressed but not nasty enough to be despicable. The result comes across as something any adult will enjoy while any kid will find neither scary nor silly. Plus director August’s staging has funny little twists that reach across all age boundaries.

Seth Bazacas give the Grinch’s dog Max just the right sense of a happy, innocent companion while, on opening night, Bailey Ryon bubbled with professional aplomb as the inevitable little girl who could steal your heart. But she never overdid it. FYI: the role is double cast, Clara Young also has the role.

Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that some critics of Seuss’ book take issue with his criticizing the commercialization of Christmas. Most of us would applaud that. I do. Here such an observation is very brief. Quote: “Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe it means a little bit more.” Right on Doctor. Let’s cheer that and all the other things that make this a good, simple, sweet story well told.

The traveling version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical is at Benedum Center downtown through Sunday November 27th at 6: 30 p.m.
412-456-6666 or

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theatre review: "Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" at City Theatre. For broadcast Sunday, 27th November 2011

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir by Keith Bunin is world-premiering at City Theatre. It’s a fictional night club act dwelling on one man, Sam, a singer, who’s been struggling to have a New York career in 1958. While on-stage, detouring into drinking too much, he goes even further off –center and talks about his emotional ups and downs as a gay man at a time when coming out could risk lives and livelihoods.

20 songs, some of them pop standards, others from Broadway musicals, seem to be front and center. Bunin picked some really great ones as well as some fine others which are less known. Clearly he’s selected many to underscore the monologue. The end result looks like a musically decorated story which Bunin wanted to tell about being gay 11 years before, a few blocks away from the Bon Soir, the Stonewall Riots broke out. I’m not sure that this device works.

Certainly on the first Saturday night performance, I came away feeling sorry that whole thing didn’t work better. Luke McFarlane as Sam, having already given a late afternoon performance, didn’t sound up to the singing challenges. As everything progressed, his intonations too often went awry. His acting looked convincing though. But he didn’t get enough out of the meaning of many great lyrics; director Mark Rucker should work with him on that. McFarlane did come across, validly, first as Sam being a polished, slick performer. Later, as Sam begins to unravel, McFarlane also did well with that too.

The piece itself doesn’t hold up well if taken as being realistic, since Sam, once too much alcohol dissolves the intended act, starts doing unexpected things up there on the stage while the trio backing him always knows the songs, and is always able to play them without being coached or prompted.And, certainly Sam’s intended act did not include such items as “That’s Him” and “The Gentleman is a Dope” or other songs women usually sing about romances with men.

You could ponder the whole idea of a night club performer telling personal stories as far back as 1958. Not stand-up comedy based on their own personalities which some acts suggested (e.g Woody Allen). But rather, something serious, eventually personified by such people as Spalding Grey and John Leguizamo, taking up stages all by themselves. They’ve become famous for making their own stories unique and special with style and good writing. Sam, as written by Bunin, doesn’t have that much personality, being neither eloquent nor personally appealing. Is he supposed to be representative rather than specific?

Speaking of devices, at one point Sam brings out a cello and plays a little. But after that, he never goes back to it. Why not? McFarlane sounded good on the instrument. Credit too, Douglas Levine at the piano, suggesting an always agreeable, skillful part of the evolving act.

This new show itself is probably still evolving. And McFarlane, with good coaching and discipline, may be able to master his second Saturday performances.

I wish him and Bunin well.

Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir plays through December 18th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. 412-431-4400 .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Theatre review: "Red" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 20th November 2011

Looking at the poster and the program book for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Red by John Logan, you might think it’s a holiday show. Maybe something about jolly Santa in his shiny suit sliding down an inevitably clean chimney loaded with gifts. That’s not in this package. This play says serious things, things to stimulate your thinking.

Actually you might respond to that often vibrant color in any number of ways, and many such meanings are splattered and strewn all over the floor and the walls hanging out with a somewhat fictionalized version of American modern painter Mark Rothko, dynamically portrayed by Jeff Still. Director Pamela Berlin has superbly paced, shaped and shaded this, vibrating within an impressively realistic setting devised by Michael Schweikardt.

Playwright Logan exceptionally articulates a pointed discourse about the nature of art and the nature of people who create it. The character of Rothko is the medium. But Rothko could be any self-obsessed artist working in any discipline in any time.

The discourse constantly provokes us to think about what goes into creating art and what comes out of how we perceive it. Because, as Logan points out via Rothko, the viewer, the hearer, the listener is a significant part of the equation.

So, as far as the play goes, on your side of the equation, you could find the many philosophical strokes and swipes, the esoteric ruminations, the polemical round-about, too much talk and too little action. Or you could, like me, remain fascinated and engaged.

The play doesn’t really establish emotional connections, although there is a second fictional character, essentially a Rothko sounding board, for all of the 100 minutes, a young assistant named Ken. In Ken, Logan sketches a person who moves away from being a mere recipient of Rothko’s often agitated pronouncements and becomes an intense inquisitor, goading and provoking Rothko about his faith in himself and in his own significance. The intensity of the talk and of the spiky arguments vibrate and seethe with ideas, even as we get some exposure to what kind of a person Rothko must have been.

Jack Cutmore Scott makes the most and best of Ken, a humanly vulnerable, nearly believable portrait despite interpreting a character who’s essentially a dramatic device.

The dimensions of this play frame eternal questions about our relationship to art and artists, and you may come away, as I did, with fresh perceptions about the many ideas laid out. And, should that be so, consider how well playwright Logan, with his art, has created something worth your time and attention.

Red continues through December 11 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown on Penn Avenue. For tickets and info: 412/316.1600 or

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Theatre review: "Illyria" at Point Park Conservatory-Sunday 13th November 2011

Once again, students of Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company, singing superbly, do wonderful things with a musical. This time it’s Illyria, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Company director Scott Wise has come up with a great look to the production giving it lots of style, personified in Michael Montgomery’s Maxfield Parrish-like costumes. And choreographer Jeremy Czarniak has added some very clever steps and effects.

Mills wrote the music and lyrics devising attractive melodies and, occasionally, quite clever lyrics. Despite having written them seven years ago, his songs have the sound and feel of traditional ones at the heartbeat of musical theater rather than aiming for something more contemporary. Particularly fun: note Feste yodeling Malvolio’s name.

The Shakespeare story and conception remain intact but only a few of his words are used. Although the plot and characters have become very well-known and you could have seen a great production of the play by Quantum Theatre a little over three months ago, here are reminders: Duke Orsino has a crush on Countess Olivia and engages a young woman named Viola, recently arrived on the shores of Illyria and disguised as her brother Sebastian, to court Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia falls in love with disguised Viola. Add to this, three memorable members of Olivia’s court: her uncle Sir Toby Belch, her haughty, self-impressed steward Malvolio and her sometimes wise jester Feste. Plus she has a new suitor, foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Mills and Reichel’s script does a fresh take on Feste, making the jester actually jest, being more of a wise guy than a wise person. And L. Fox plays the role with smart personality, also singing with class. Paul Koudouris exceptionally stands out personifying Malvolio with edgy panache, never pushing it too far. On the other hand, as Sir Andrew, Connor Russell flutters and flits so often that, at on opening night, I expected him to sprout wings and fly up into those of the theatre. Plus Jaron Frand’s performance of the real Sebastian has convincing charm with his attractive singing adding to the production’s consistently appealing sound, as does the impressive voice of Jaclyn McSpadden’s Olivia.

Shakespeare’s original script opens with these words: “If music be the food of love, play on…” Although the rest of that speech suggests that Orsino is unhappy, happily this version of the story could make you love its sound, its look and its feel.

Illyria plays on through Sunday November 20th at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Rauh Theater, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-392-8000 or

Incidentally, the Conservatory also has performances of Shakespeare’s play itself December 9th through 18th

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Theatre review: "Sweeney Todd" at University of Pittsburgh. Sunday 6th November 2011

It’s taken me some time to realize that what’s called the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre has actually, thoroughly become a training program for the University’s Theatre Arts students. Not so long ago excellent, professionally experienced actors on the faculty performed often and well enough to give some sense of an actual repertory company creating quality of potential widespread audience appeal. Clearly those days are gone. Gone too from the faculty are such talents as Elena Alexandratos, Doug Mertz and Sam Turich.

The present staff has now taken on a major project which certainly is good experience for students. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd features a wealth of magnificent music and exceptional lyrics by Sondheim set into Wheeler’s sordid melodrama like jewels scattered on dirty pavements. Making the best of this complex work, with its great songs, its dark story and its almost stock characters has always been a major challenge for even the best professional performers. Plus the score calls for a really good orchestra.

Sondheim’s melodies and intricate words don’t make things easy and, as the performance wore on during the first of the two Saturday evening productions, the singing and the orchestra’s playing continued to deteriorate while everybody did their best they could. The University Symphony Orchestra and the cast are led by music director Roger Zahab. He’s on the Pitt faculty.

Three other faculty members with professional experience interpret significant roles. One of them sings quite well, Richard Teaster as Sweeney. His acting comes across as serviceable as does that of Theo Allyn as Mrs. Lovett and Andy Narraj as Judge Turpin. The student acting looks competent as guided by director, the Theatre Arts Department’s Lisa Jackson-Schebetta who has come up with much that seems more utilitarian than insightful.

Family and friends of everyone involved in the production certainly remained a game and friendly audience. As for others, those unfamiliar with the show can get some idea of what it is supposed to be and get a glimmer of the songs’ inherent richness.

FYI: CMU students will try it themselves early next year. It will be interesting to see how they fare.

Sweeney Todd continues through November 13th at Charity Randall Theatre in The Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY i.e :412 624- 7529 or

Friday, November 4, 2011

Theatre review: "Million Dollar Quartet" tour at The Benedum-Sunday 6th November 2011

There was a time when southern white guys were learning to perform rhythm and blues, harking to black singers, soul singers, and down home back country guitarists. And out of those fundamental sources, those white guys began making names for themselves bringing forth music and words that sounded like the sources even if it was their own new stuff. And, lord a mighty, out of those roots, rock and roll was born, surging forth, stirring crowds, bringing many of those newcomers fame and fortune.

In the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, some of them, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, surge forth again, not as wax replicas in a museum, not as plastic, deliberate impersonations, but as soulful, gutsy, down-home, full-blown talents, romping through 23 great songs that they made famous or that made them famous themselves. They do so in a version of that show that has hit the road and planted its feet for just a few days here at The Benedum. That trip is worth the trip.

Rock and roll history is full of milestones. In 1956 the roots had firmly planted, even if some people in the music business never thought that that new thing would survive or wanted to trim it or turn it into topiary. And, in 1956, those four stars, almost by accident, collectively moseyed on in to the small Memphis recording studio that gave birth to their careers. Sun Records. The one-time gathering was real. It became history.

That event has been re-imagined and evoked by writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux in Million Dollar Quartet. It’s fundamentally a showcase for a mighty fine bunch of songs although Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, personified by Christopher Ryan Grant, narrates background while telling his own part of the story. Most of the dialogue sounds fundamental, the acting of it sounding capable enough. But note: unlike so many other shows of the day, this one has no profanity, no nudity. You might think these rock stars were as innocent as the days they were born.

Those good old songs catchily, compellingly grab you, hold you, warm you, thanks to the talents on stage. Listen to Lee Ferris as Carl Perkins play the heck of that guitar. Watch Martin Kaye as sassy upcomer Jerry Lee Lewis delightfully pound and sound every note from every angle of the piano while his stomping feet nearly put holes into the floor. Hear Derek Keeling resonantly probe the down-to-earth lower notes as Johnny Cash. Watch Cody Slaughter make young Elvis a sincere, gentle soul who just happens to have knees that can’t help rocking and legs that can’t help stomping. And Chuck Zayas’ bass sturdily underpins the propulsion.

Great balls of fire, there’s a whole lot of great shaking going on.

Million Dollar Quartet is at Benedum Center through 6:30 pm Sunday November 6th. In the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : (412) 456-6666 or